A poster showing Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating last year's deadly blast at the Beirut port, is set on fire by supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups during a protest in front of the Justice Palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday. Photo by Jamal Eddine/UPI | License Photo
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Deadly clashes that erupted Thursday during a protest organized by Hezbollah and its Shiite Amal movement ally to demand the removal of the lead judge investigating last year's Beirut port explosion were a painful reminder of the country's 1975-90 civil war.
The clashes further fueled fears of Lebanon's security collapse.
Six people were killed and some 30 others were wounded when gunfire broke out in the Tayounah area as Hezbollah and Amal supporters were marching to the Judicial Palace to protest against Judge Tarek Bitar, the second judge to lead the port blast investigation.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been highly critical of Bitar, accusing him of being biased, politicized and selective in summoning politicians, mostly allied with Hezbollah, for questioning. Nasrallah called for replacing Bitar, arguing that he would never reach the truth.
Supported by the families of the port explosion victims, Bitar remained undeterred. On Monday, he issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil, a parliamentarian and former minister close to House Speaker Nabih Berri.
Khalil and two other former ministers have lodged complaints against Bitar, which led to the suspension of the inquiry for a while.
Four hours of clashes
At first, it was not clear what triggered the Thursday clashes or who was firing. Masked men were seen firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades while snipers were shooting from rooftops and buildings.
The clashes continued for nearly four hours along a former civil war front line separating the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Rummaneh, a strong base of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, and the nearby Shiite area of Chiyah, which is controlled by Hezbollah and Amal.
Hezbollah and Amal issued a joint statement, accusing "armed groups" from the Lebanese Forces headed by Samir Geagea of firing at the protesters.
Fadi Karam, secretary of the LF Parliamentary Bloc, rejected the Hezbollah-Amal accusations and blamed the clashes on Hezbollah supporters, who instead of heading to the Judicial Palace entered "a safe area" in Ein al Rummaneh and "started to smash cars and properties."
"Why they [Hezbollah] were armed, and why they came to this area? The inhabitants were surprised and started to defend themselves and their properties, whether they are from the LF or others," Karam told UPI.
Dozens of men were seen in videos circulated online chanting "Shiite Shiite" and destroying cars and shops. It wasn't clear who the snipers firing from nearby buildings were.
Karam dismissed the notion that the clashes would lead to another civil war. But he said: "Hezbollah needs to realize that it cannot impose its control, cast doubts and question the [port explosion] investigation and tell the judges what they have to do... This is unacceptable.
"No one can impose on us things that we don't want... Hezbollah cannot impose its conditions and should not think that it can change Lebanon's identity and control the country because its control brought disasters, destroyed the economy and isolated Lebanon," he said.
Heavily armed and backed by Iran, Hezbollah is Lebanon's most powerful political and military force. It grew stronger when it engaged in the Syria war along with Iranian special forces to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and dispatched thousands of fighters to Iraq and Yemen.
The investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port blast -- which killed more than 200, wounded 6,000 and destroyed neighborhoods -- hasn't determined what specifically sparked the explosion, or who brought and hid the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate for seven years before it ignited.
Only a fifth of the original shipment unloaded in 2013 blew up at the port, reinforcing suspicion over what happened to the rest of it, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation .
Families of the victims have been protesting the lack of accountability and urging Bitar to try senior officials who knew about the shipment and took no action to protect the population. They also insist on knowing who was behind the ammonium nitrate shipment.
Hezbollah's growing suspicion of the investigation was linked to fears of attempts to "use and manipulate the inquiry," as with the international investigation that indicted a Hezbollah member in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, according to a political source close to the pro-Iranian group who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity.
Hariri was killed in a massive explosion that targeted his convoy in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
"The port investigation, the upcoming general elections and maritime border dispute with Israel are all pressuring tools" against Hezbollah, Amin Kammourieh, a journalist and an independent political analyst, told UPI.
The recent Iraqi general elections in which pro-Iranian Shiite candidates emerged as the biggest losers add to Hezbollah's tension, Kammourieh said.
Could the same happen to Hezbollah when and if the parliamentary elections are held next spring?
"There will be lots of pressures... Weakening Hezbollah is a target of the upcoming general elections," Kammourieh said. "We also all know that Hezbollah and Amal will not accept the result of the port inquiry.. If they allow the investigation to continue, they don't know where it will end."
He, however, warned that the worst thing to happen to Hezbollah is to be dragged into an internal war. "That would be the end for the group."
Kammourieh warned that the country has entered a new phase: "After the political and economic collapse, now we started with the worst -- a security collapse."